It’s been a while since I’ve taken notice of Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, the misguided “food safety” activist who sees chemicals, chemicals, chemicals everywhere and raises fears about them all, especially the ones that she can’t pronounce. The first time I took any significant notice of her was about a year ago, when she was making news for lobbying Subway to remove the “yoga mat chemical” azodicarbonamide from its bread. Of course, as I explained, azodicarbonamide is a safe chemical that disappears during the baking. It’s a maturing agent that makes bread dough rise better and improves the handling properties of doughs, yielding drier, more cohesive doughs that are more pliable, hold together better during kneading, and machine better. Then, she made some astonishing ignorant statements about beer, where she pulled the same routine, to the point where I said labeled her tactics as the “appeal to yuckiness.” Basically, if something sounds yucky to her (such as isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish and is used in some beers to remove haziness and yeast byproducts), then it must be bad, either for you or just bad because it’s gross. It also turns out that The Food Babe makes quite a pretty penny spreading her ignorance and has become sought after to feature in various media appearances, such as magazine covers.
Oh, and she believes in Masaro Emoto’s water woo (in the context of claiming that microwaving is bad for food) and has shown some antivaccine stylings.
For the last few months I’ve been somewhat dreading February, because I knew Hari was poised to release her first book. As I described before, she has more than a fair amount of social media savvy and business acumen, which have allowed her to build the Food Babe brand rapidly and explains (to me at least) why she seemed to come out of nowhere to be on a trajectory to become as influential as Dr. Mehmet Oz. Her book, released this week, is called The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! (Talk about ridiculously long subtitles.) You see, I knew that when it came time for Hari’s book to come out we’d be seeing a lot more of her, and unfortunately that’s what happened. As part of that publicity, Hari was featured in a fairly long feature article in The Atlantic by James Hamblin, The Food Babe: Enemy of Chemicals. It’s a relatively amusing title, to be sure, and there’s a lot that’s good about the article. Unfortunately, there’s a lot that’s downright infuriating as well, the more so given that Hamblin is a physician and really should know better. To some extent, he does, but unfortunately in this piece he shows himself far more respectful of pseudoscience of the sort promoted by The Food Babe than a physician should be.
What’s infuriating is that this article is one of the most egregious examples I’ve seen in a long time of “false balance.” In this case, the false balance comes in the form of a “point-counterpoint” style of telling the Food Babe’s story, whereby she makes a claim, which is then refuted or contested by a scientist. You might think: Great! The article is debunking Hari’s nonsense, and, to a reasonable extent it does, but it does so in such a way as to give the illusion that there is actually a scientific controversy about the topics Hari gloms onto. With few exceptions, there isn’t, and for the exceptions she inevitably takes the most fear mongering approach. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. Hamblin has revealed himself to be insufficiently skeptical about dubious medical claims before, specifically about chelation therapy.
On the other hand, I will give Hamblin credit for quoting part of Hari’s book that perfectly encompasses her complete ignorance of chemistry, physiology, and pharmacology:
Her stance on food additives is an absolute one: “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
So may I assume that Hari doesn’t ingest water? That’s a chemical. What about salt or sugar? Those are chemicals too. What about food? Our food, even part of a perfect raw vegan diet, is chock full of chemicals because organisms, be they plants or animals, are made up of chemicals with structures ranging from very simple to highly complex, such as proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and many others.
Yes, I know that when someone like Hari says “chemical,” she isn’t using the scientific definition of the word, which basically describes all matter cooler than plasma. After all, pretty much everything is made up of chemicals. Rather, when someone like Hari says “chemicals,” she means synthetic, man made chemicals. Of course, that’s—if you’ll excuse the term—an artificial distinction. What’s “natural” and what’s not? Is it “unnatural” to modify a natural product and use it? What about mixtures? Yes, Hari’s fear of chemicals is completely over-the-top, and Hamblin notes the criticism that she has received:
Most of the scientists who have spoken on Hari’s work, though, are less than supportive of that sweeping message. Rather, her work has drawn ardent criticism, primarily from a vocal contingent of academic researchers and doctors, who accuse her, in no uncertain terms, of fear-mongering and profiteering. They say that she invokes science when it is convenient, as in the passage above, but demonizes it when it is not—as in her blanket case against any and all genetically modified food. Last month, NPR ran a critique of Hari’s work, quoting several of her outspoken detractors. Science writer Kavin Senapathy, for one, captured the concerns of many in saying that Hari “exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers.” Others, including neurologist Steven Novella, have said that she is to food what Jenny McCarthy is to vaccines.
Yep. The Food Babe is, as I’ve put it, the Jenny McCarthy of food.
Of interest to me, at least, was the part of the profile where Hamblin goes into a bit more detail than I had known before about the Food Babe’s origins:
One cold winter night, when she was in her early 20s, Vani Hari developed some pain in her lower abdomen. She went to a nearby hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was born and had returned to live after college. In the emergency department, she remembers being told to relax, that her ovaries were “moving,” and she’d be fine. The next morning she went in for a second opinion, and she was diagnosed with appendicitis. Within an hour she was having her appendix laparoscopically excised. Recovering in the hospital that night, she remembers someone took a picture of her, and she ripped it up thinking she looked “so, so bad.” And she definitely felt horrible.
Since graduating from college, Hari had been working as a consultant at Accenture. She kept long, exhausting hours. She recalls being afraid to leave to use the bathroom during meetings because the environment was so intense. She ate decadent catered meals from exorbitant expense accounts. “A bunch of stuff that really doesn’t serve the body,” she recalls. “But I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be a partner. I was ambitious.” But the health issues she’d had as a child—allergies, eczema, asthma—flared up. Over the first year of the job, she gained between 30 and 40 pounds. She felt bad and “didn’t look that great.”
When the appendicitis hit, that was a breaking point. Lying in her hospital bed, Hari said, “I just had this light bulb awakening moment, you know? This isn’t how I want to live.”
It’s not that uncommon a story among cranks. Mike Adams, for example, cites the origin of his crank activism (although he wouldn’t put it that way, of course) as being due to a deterioration in his health at a young age where he was, if you believe his story, diagnosed with type II diabetes at age 30. Ditto Chris Wark of Chris Beat Cancer, who became an activist after suffering from colon cancer in his 20s, an unusually young age to be stricken with the disease. The “wake up call” of a serious health problem suffered at a young age is a common story among cranks and quacks. After all, young people tend to believe that they are relatively indestructible and can expect good health for several more decades before old age and its attendant problems finally catches up with them. When poor health strikes at such a young age, people can feel cheated.
Of course, it’s great that Hari cleaned up her act, lost a bunch of weight, and saw her health problems go away. However, as all too often happens, she also attributed her health problems to more than just a poor diet and lifestyle. She blamed the evil chemicalz! She blamed processed foods, various food additives, and basically any synthetic chemical. Over time, as I’ve observed, this belief has morphed into a seeming concept that anything with a long chemical name that she can’t pronounce must be bad. Indeed, it’s evolved, as Hamblin notes, to include even things that are perfectly “natural,” such as isinglass derived from fish swim bladders. Hamblin just doesn’t seem to note that the reason isinglass is bad to The Food Babe is nothing more complex than her revulsion that a product of fish swim bladder is used to make some beers. Ditto the product of beaver anal glands and others:
At times, even, Hari’s suspicions lead her to contradict the basic tenet that natural is good. “Readers of my blog know,” she writes in the book, “that the next time you lick vanilla ice cream from a cone, there’s a good chance you’ll be swirling secretions from a beaver’s anal glands around in your mouth.” Indeed. “Called castoreum, this secretion is used as a ‘natural flavor’ not only in vanilla ice cream but also in strawberry oatmeal and raspberry-flavored products.” And, similarly, “If you chew gum, you may also be chewing lanolin, an oily secretion found in sheep’s wool that is used to soften some gums. What nutritional value do you think these disgusting additives have for your body? None! They exist just to get you to buy something fake or that shouldn’t be food, rather than a real alternative.”
Appeal to yuckiness, indeed. And to “chemically-sounding” names. Or whatever else Hari can’t understand or finds gross.
Another thing that drives Hari is an intense competitiveness, which she attributes to her talent as a high school debater. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the goal of a debater is not to find out what is accurate from a scientific standpoint (or any other standpoint, for that matter). It is to defend her position. It is to attack her opponent’s position. It is to win the debate based on rhetoric and carefully selected evidence (not to mention carefully constructed attacks on your opponents evidence). Winning a debate involves marshaling evidence to support a given position, not following the evidence where it leads. Actually, Hari’s love of high school debate and her competitive nature, when coupled with her scientific ignorance, provide a pretty darned good explanation why she is so impervious to correction. So does this:
“There’s disconnect between the language of science and the language of common communication,” Folta said, explaining why, while many people are upset over the GRAS system, it doesn’t bother him. “You can never demonstrate that something is ‘safe.’ Whether it’s water or sugar; there’s no way. Because you can’t test every aspect. All we can say is, of all the things we’ve looked at, there’s no evidence of harm. If you said, can you prove to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is safe, I’d say, no way. With vaccines, sure, you can’t account for some extremely rare effect that might be seen in someone with a particular metabolic disorder, but that’s not to say they’re not a tremendous benefit to society as a whole.”
I guess the only good thing about my having encountered Vani Hari is that I became aware of Kevin Folta, an outspoken food scientist. He’s an impressive guy, although I must disagree with him when he says, “I don’t want to throw her under the bus; I want her to get on the bus.” The reason is that I don’t think Hari is educable. I suppose that there’s some slim chance that I’m wrong about this, but I doubt it, given how rare it is for someone who’s gone so far down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience to reverse course. I suppose we can always hope.
In any case, GRAS stands for “generally recognized as safe,” a designation used by the FDA to describe substances that have been in long use and are, well, generally recognized as safe. There might be an issue, as noted by Hamblin, that more substances have gained the GRAS designation than rate it, but the Food Babe goes far beyond science-based calls for reform of the GRAS designation every time she goes off the deep end with respect to science. For instance:
“The scientists who argue with me about this minute data, who keep saying ‘The dose makes the poison,’ Hari says, shaking her head. “Why aren’t we more cautious about the ingredients we allow in our food supply? Why are we allowing all these additives? And what’s the cumulative effect of all these additives together? That’s something people are just starting to study.”
And why are we giving so many vaccines so early? It’s “too many too soon.” What are all those chemicals in vaccines? They’re “toxins.” Truly, Vani Hari is the Jenny McCarthy of food.
And like Jenny McCarthy, Hari thrives on the opposition her crusade provokes. She thrives on victimhood. It’s how she rallies her troops. It’s what she did a a couple of months ago in response to the NPR article mentioned above. She spent a lot more verbiage claiming that her critics were all in the pay of pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness than she did actually trying to refute anything. Yes, there were some despicably misogynic comments directed at her, as, unfortunately, many women suffer online. (It always pisses me off to see such behavior from anyone on “our side.”) Unfortunately she wielded them like a shield and tried to use them to paint “our side” as nothing more than a bunch of misogynistic trolls, in the pay of Monsanto, of course.
Then there’s the issue of how she deals with reasonable criticism. Hamblin notes that Hari admits that her post about microwaving food and how it supposedly harms the food’s nutritional value (her post with the Masaro Emoto’s water woo in it). In response to some criticism, she has said:
Hari recently implemented an editorial policy on the site wherein any change or correction will be noted (“I make mistakes, I’m human.”). And she will be announcing an advisory board that will help to review her claims. She will continue to be, as she has already proven, relentless and purposeful and clearly effective. It may be too optimistic to think that both sides of these debates can grow together and learn from one another’s concerns and perspectives, but the opportunity is certainly there. Until then, the battle for moral high ground marches on.
Anyone want to guess who will be on this “advisory board”? Joel Kahn, perhaps, the woo-friendly cardiologist who gave Hari a publicity blurb for her book. Mark Hyman, the “functional medicine” guru who provided the foreword to her book? Dr. Oz? The possibilities are endless, unfortunately.
The passage by Hamblin above is another example of false equivalency. Hari’s just another party battling scientists for the moral high ground. Never mind that she peddles nothing but pseudoscience and food fear mongering and her scientist critics do their best to promote information well-grounded in science. Meanwhile, contrary to her promise, in November Hari actually began to use SEO tricks to actively thwart critics by making old posts that she now finds embarrassing disappear down the Internet memory hole by turning off archiving at Archive.org by changing the robots.txt file of her website and other tricks. Hamblin never mentions this, nor does he mention that there’s also no evidence that she’s ever made a substantive correction to something she’s said that was shown unequivocally to be wrong. Add that to the discovery that she sells products with some of the dreaded chemicals she demonizes in them (something Hamblin also fails to note), and I see no evidence that the Food Babe is ever likely to reform her pseudoscientific ways.
I have little doubt that Hari started out sincere and probably still is, mostly. Hers is a classic American “rags-to-riches” story, at least in the Internet era. Not so long ago, no one, including myself, had ever heard of Vani Hari. Now everyone knows who The Food Babe is. Unfortunately, the Internet and today’s media often don’t distinguish that much between science and pseudoscience when it comes to fame and influence.